Weight-loss drugs stumble. Can supplements take advantage?

Weight-loss drugs stumble. Can supplements take advantage?

Do safety concerns about Lorcaserin's side effects -  including heart valve disease and psychiatric problems - open the door for honest botanical ingredients?

I have a friend who's a magician — Professor Phelyx. His repertoire includes a truly jaw-dropping signature trick — a standard-issue restaurant fork that ends up bent, twisted and splayed, with most of that happening while an audience member is holding the fork in her hand.

But even Phelyx can't conjure a magic weight-loss pill.

That doesn't keep companies from trying, though, even if some folks might get hurt in the process. Consider the recent news that lorcaserin, one of the latest pharmaceutical entrants in the weight-management category, is running into trouble. Lorcaserin is one of three drugs trying to become the first weight-loss pharmaceutical to be approved by FDA in more than a decade.

Lorcaserin is no powerhouse — its results in clinical trials barely cleared the statistical significance bar — but it was thought to be a front-runner because of a good safety profile. But now, FDA scientists in an online review have raised safety concerns about side effects, including heart valve disease and psychiatric problems, especially in light of the drug's very modest benefits.

Combine that with the split decision rendered on Wednesday by a panel of outside experts advising FDA on what to do with Abbott Laboratories' longtime weight-loss drug Meridia. Meridia (generic name: sibutramine) has already been pulled from shelves in Europe over heart-attack concerns. The panel (whose decisions are nonbinding on FDA) split 8-8 over whether to leave Meridia on the market with further safety warnings or recommend pulling it altogether.  The irony here of course is that weight-loss 'supplements' laced with knock-off versions of sibutramine have been entering the market in increasing numbers in recent months.

It all would seem to create an opening for honest botanical weight-loss ingredients. It's a tricky marketing proposition because weight loss bears directly on consumers' self image. And many people seem loathe to hear the truth: Only altering your lifestyle — eating less (or better) and exercising more — can effect true change.

To their credit, the companies in our industry following best practices hawk their ingredients or supplements only as a support in just such an overall weight-management strategy. And they don't claim the 15 percent weight loss that some drugs seem to have shown in trials. Natural supplements supporting weight-loss aren't home run hitters. They're more in the way of base hits in support of helping customers reach their weight-loss goals.

Drastic measures to reduce weight — such as gastric bypass surgery or using powerful pharmaceuticals — might be called for in cases of morbid obesity or genetic conditions that mitigate against other weight-management strategies. But most diets are undertaken primarily for cosmetic reasons. Is trying to drop 10 pounds in time for next weekend's reunion worth running the kind of risks that are part and parcel of the pharmaceutical model?

 And here's where our industry comes in. We don't have any magic pills to sell. We have products that are gentle in effect and very low in risk. We can help customers help themselves, and we won't hurt them in the process. And that should count for a lot.

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